We are sitting in Horst’s kitchen, a wild array of glasses and wine bottles in front of us on the table. I don’t remember if there was any music playing.
“And the next day, I get a phone call from this winemaker’s brother. We say hello, I ask him why he’s calling and he says- “My brother called me and told me you used bay leaf in your chicken soup last night. He was very upset.“
A spontaneous wave of belly aching laughter spreads through the room. It was the climax to Horst’s story detailing a night where he cooked dinner for a couple local winemakers in the very kitchen we were sitting in. Turns out he is an avid cook, food being another way to tell his story.
Horst picked us up only a couple hours earlier at the inn we were staying at in what can only be described as a miracle of German technical resilience. The car is Berlin Kreuzberg punk meets winemaking Mustang and with 650000+ km on the meter, it is a running time capsule. We naively thought that this vehicle was just used to get around in the area of Villány but no – Horst regularly uses it to undertake the 11-hour drive to Berlin and back. A brave and telling feat.
While the gentlemen get to the cooking, Miška and I get to the drinking and asking questions.
An obvious one presents itself – how does a German man end up making wine in Hungary?
Horst is extremely articulate in his replies and it’s quickly apparent why – originally from Swabia, he moved at a young age to Berlin where he successfully pursued the career of a lawyer. He falls in love with wine in the 1990s, starts tasting, traveling in search of great regions and upon drinking a particularly unforgettable Meursault in Burgundy, the love affair gets serious. I know very few people that are ‘serious about wine’ who don’t in some shape or form dream of one day trying their hand at winemaking. It’s the ultimate test to one’s knowledge and love for the beverage. Very few people actually make the jump though, whether out of respect or fear. Horst did.
Realizing the thirst for winemaking is real, Horst travelled to Vojvodina in Serbia in the mid 90s with the aim of exploring his heritage as his ancestors made wine in the area. Upon traveling back, he stumbled across the Hungarian village of Villány and became intrigued with the land and it’s potential. After his second visit there when a friend asked whether he wanted to “take a casual look at some plots”, Horst is already the owner of more than 7 hectares. He recalls his first vintage in 1998 as challenging but over the next couple of years the new shoes are broken into with the winery turning exclusively to organic viticulture practices in 2008.
Progress is hard earned however - being a German in Hungary making wine, let alone in a way that starkly differs from the surrounding wine culture comes with its trials and tribulations.
A simple but nourishing bean soup is served and the gentlemen sit down for the first round of wines. ‘Góré’, Horst’s first orange wine stands out. Made from the Hungarian variety Hárslevelü, it is juicy but structured, a wine that commands attention. No wonder góré translates to ‚boss‘. Horst digs into a story about how he had this wine submitted into an assessment by the local wine registration board and it only barely “passed the test”. Most people on the committee didn’t think it was actually wine. Thankfully, a member of the committee was Horst’s friend and managed to convince the others that they should turn a blind eye. His recollection is very matter-of-fact – a day in the life of.
More wine is served and the aroma of the second course, spaghetti ala pomodoro, deliciously spreads through the messy kitchen. Earlier that day I’d read an interesting article about the inevitable concept that has almost turned into a wine punch line – terroir. This formidable word is most commonly translated as ‘sense of place’ describing a set of environmental characteristics – soil type, surrounding flora and fauna, weather and climate conditions, farming techniques etc. – that can make a particular wine unique. Generally, a wine is deemed of a higher quality when it manages to express its terroir in a distinguishable way.
I ask Horst about his opinion on the subject, half anticipating an eye roll. But who better to ask about terroir than someone who travelled across the world in search of a place that would speak to him and his winemaking dream? Thankfully, Horst was game. He starts with the history of winemaking in Villány itself. In broad terms, the region has a reputation for being one of the most favorable for making red wine in the entire country. It was a particular generation of winemakers who after traveling to California and falling in love with the ‘big bold reds’ started producing such wine in the area planting Cab Franc, Cab Sauvignon and Merlot in great numbers. The resulting wines are usually exactly big and bold – high on alcohol and tannin.
Horst also works with these varieties but the results are quite different. His philosophy on winemaking has developed into something that feels like it walks the fragility of nature and human consciousness – Horst is very present in the vineyard yet he doesn’t intervene much. Only when thinks it is necessary. Spending his time between Berlin and Villány, its only natural that he isn’t in the vineyards all the time. Pun not intended.
“Wine should not be about ego. That’s bullshit. Ideology is bullshit - we do not need more of it.”
Sipping on the last couple of samples including the absolutely unique Merlot ‘Xeyn’, we all violently nod our heads. There is a danger to talking about ego – it can sound egoistic. This however was definitely not the case – Horst’s wines speak for themselves. Simple, elegant, thirsty, nuanced, juicy, rough, unforgiving. One of Horst’s statements behind the dinner table about his winemaking process revolved around the idea that the person making the wine is not really that important. Nature is. Yet sitting there, digesting the food and the ideas, I left humbled and pondering what grace and hardship it must take to produce such wine. If Horst didn’t intervene through cooperating with the vines and their surroundings there would be no wine.
The following day after a good breakfast with bad coffee, we stroll through the sunny village back to Horst’s place. He looks a bit startled to see us, as if we’ve interrupted him in something important. We soon find out why.
Before visiting Horst, I had heard of biodynamic practices in the vineyard but my knowledge wasn’t very extensive. Ultimately a set of particular agricultural methods, biodynamic practices embody the idea that a farm or vineyard is in its entirety a living, interconnected ecosystem - think circular economy but in the context of nature. The concepts carries with it a set of philosophical backbone ideas that revolve around connecting the way nature works with the spiritual. Healing and helping nature with what it has to offer, nothing more.
Horst is standing over a barrel, vigorously revolving what looks like a wooden spatula. We peer inside and see what essentially looks like water being swirled into a vortex. Turns out, this is a whole new level of the expression ‚holy shit‘. In the autumn, cow horns are stuffed with fresh cow manure, dug into the ground, left there over the winter and then dug out at a particular time in the spring. Once out of the ground, the manure is odorless and mixed with water into a liquid that is then sprayed onto the vineyards. The mixing of the manure with the water is a process called dynamization – the vigorous vortex of the universe mentioned above – that aims to oxygenate the liquid and carries a relatively strict set of rules around it.
Sitting in silence, we sit on Horst’s sun kissed porch watching him dynamize for around an hour or so. It’s an interesting experience that almost feels like a religious ritual.
„It took me a while before we moved into biodynamics. You know, I don’t do this alone. I knew if I wanted it to be successful my guys would have to be on board. I don’t think they necessarily agree with the process – they think I’m crazy – but they don’t oppose it and now after two years, I think they secretly enjoy it. And that’s what’s important.“
Once he is done, we hop into the Berlin wine mobile and set out into the vineyards. The vineyard is teeming with life as we walk through and it is the first time I am really confronted with the idea of biodiversity in practice. An emerald snake slithers past my feet while a real life Hummel - bumblebee in German - buzzes by. It would almost be kitschy if it weren't so beautiful. The presence of various flowers, plants and animals challenges the vine while providing necessary nutrient diversity. More than religion and philosophy it is the logic of the whole approach that starts to sink in.
We walk on past Horst's Cab Franc when I suddenly spot that the rows further on look very different to his. Almost no grass, the land a dusty barren yellow. I ask Horst about it and his answer is simple - his neighbors use herbicides and/or pesticides to treat the vineyard. Something key to natural wine that I understood on a theoretical basis up to that point was suddenly right in front of my eyes. It immediately struck me how someone could claim the plot in front me was better managed than its neighbor. What has long resonated with people in terms of the food products they eat - that treating fruits and vegetables with chemical compounds is not necessarily a healthy and good idea - is an idea that in terms of wine hasn't caught on or even causes speculation. Yet grapes are fruits too at the end of the day so why would treating vineyards organically not work?
The day comes to a close when we reach Jammerthal where Horst has his barrel cellar and a plot where he grow Blauer Portugieser, a near forgotten variety in the area. We taste a bunch of samples, each different and resonant. Animal tones in the Cab Franc are accompanied with racy tasting notes and the cellar echoes with laughter. Horst dives into another story of how when he first planted the Portugieser a couple years prior his phone was buzzing the very next day with mildly outraged phone calls about what "nonsense" he was up to in Jammerthal.
In Hungary, most people have a way of going about things and anyone who strays from a pre-determined recipe is bound to stir up temperamental sentiments. Every csárda, village or town has a distinct recipe for babguláš, halászle and more often than not, a way of going about life in general. Traditions are important but it is safe to say that chicken soup is not made with bay leaf and wine is not sprayed with dynamized cow manure in Villány.
Yet Horst is a member of this community either way – he regularly cooks dinner for friends and winemakers from the region including Csaba Malatinszky, a producer also from Villány whose winemaking approach lies on the fringe of what is and what isn't considered natural in global terms. Csaba told us that without him his wines wouldn’t get made. A true, but contrasting statement to our time spent with Horst.
In times when crowds are focusing on the things that make us different and viewing them as a source of disharmony and trouble, these two winemakers and the place they embody in the world represent what are inherently simple things. The radical ideas that wine is just fermented grape juice, that nature always finds a way and that our differences connect us more deeply than our similarities. It is easy to respect people for things that are familiar to you because of the seeming connection recognizable things create. It is having respect for things you may not know that much about or even oppose that is a much more difficult discipline.
Thank you to Stando from Veltlin for making this trip possible, to Csaba who also cooked us a wonderful dinner and most of all, to Horst who was an inspiring and gracious host. Vielen Dank.